Training Computers to Understand the Human Brain

In keeping with yesterdays post ( Using brain imaging to predict your behaviour ) researchers from Tokyo Institute of Technology, collaborating with co-workers in the USA, UK and Italy, have completed a study that used fMRI datasets to train a computer to predict categories of images.  

To do this, they had volunteers come in and look at pictures of different animals or tools. They were asked to categorise these silently, while undergoing a fMRI scan. These scans were then analysed for patterns that would separate these two categories (animals and tools).

After getting these algorithms, and in some way “training” the computer - the computer was able to correctly identify the scans with 90% accuracy. So - the computer was able to look at the volunteers’ scans, analyse them, and predict what category they were looking at.

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2012 in review

(well, since I haven’t been blogging long - three months of 2012 in review). 

I thought that since the end of the year is here it would be nice to look back on some of my favourite posts that have been up on this blog so far.

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How the brain controls our habits

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Blindsight is an incredibly interesting phenomenon

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Torturing the Sims isn’t that uncommon

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Using brain imaging to predict your behaviour

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Whole brain catalogue

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The Love Competition

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Beau Lotto: Optical illusions show how we see

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Zombies, brains and Twitter: The neuroscience of “The Walking Dead”

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It’s a fine line between love and hate in the brain

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What does space travel do to your mind?

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Stigma and mental health

I also just want to say thank you for following my blog. When I started this I didn’t have any aspirations - I just wanted a place to record everything interesting I read/found on the internet, and it has turned into so much more. 

I hope you keep enjoying my blog in the new year, and that you have a good night however you’re celebrating!

Happy New Year when it arrives!

I can safely say that this is not true. I actually think this might be the biggest “brain myth” out there! I find this myth incredibly strange as it seems to suggest that if 90% of our brain was removed, we would be okay!

 Our brain is constantly running and far, far more than 10% of it at a time. I don’t know exact figures but I would guess somewhere closer to 80% at a time. Every brain region has a function, and all of these need to be able to step up and work at once if we ever should need them to. Frequently, a lot of them do.

Also - the brain is an enormously costly organ to run - it’s pretty greedy and uses vast amounts of the body’s oxygen, blood, glucose, and anything else it needs. Evolution wouldn’t have given us such a “needy” brain just for a measly 10% function.

So - there’s no need to train your brain, it’s already pretty fantastic on its own. 

Tips from science to help your brain revise

Seeing as exam periods are fast approaching, I thought this research might be relevant! 

If you are revising for exams, obviously memory is the most important function. Research has given us seven top tips to get information to stay in your brain. 

1. Mnemonics - using strategies to remember. Mnemoics act as cues to try and trigger the retrieval of the memory in the brain. 

2. - Repetition! Your memory pathways in the brain can be strengthened by practising retrieving a memory over and over again. 

3. Spaced Repetition. Memories get stronger the more you retrieve them, and you should vary the time in between retrieval - so start by trying to recall what you learnt 5 minutes ago. Then, in an hour, do the same; then tomorrow do the same …. and so on. 

4. Breaks! This one is nice, but also scientific! When your hippocampus (brain area strongly involved in memory) is forced to store many new things, it can get jumbled up. 

5. Avoid Distractions. This one is hard for me. I can always find something that needs done before studying - silly things like reorganising my desk. Despite this, attention is the key to memorising, so I should take this tip on board. Apparently most of our problems have very little to do with memory, we just struggle to give revision our full attention and so the memory is not encoded as well. Furthermore, playing music as you revise will make it harder! 

6. Sleep! Sleep is vital for memory believe it or not. Sleep is when the brain is thought to “back up” all the information it has learnt that day to create long term memories. 

7. Emotions matter. Most of you could probably remember an emotional day (e.g. birthdays,funerals etc.) much better than a normal, non emotional day. This is because we remember emotionally charged events much better than others. If you can associate a particular feeling with a particular revision topic, then you have a better chance of remembering. 

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Most of my undergrad was spent at the University of Glasgow.

FYI - I didn’t take these photos - I googled and they popped up. And they are real photos of my University, not screenshots from Harry Potter movies.

anonymous asked:

Hi Psycholar, do you know to what extent do parenting styles on children affect their attachment in adulthood?


In Psychology “parenting styles” and “attachment” are two different concepts, although undoubtedly related. Since you asked about how attachment styles change with age I will focus on that. If you want to find out about Parenting Styles - just search for Baumrind or Maccoby and Martin’s theory - it goes over four different parenting styles and how they can affect childrens’ development.

As far as attachment goes - the main theory is Mary Ainsworth’s “Attachment Styles” theory, which says there are four main attachment styles: secure, avoidant, ambivalent and disorganised. These attachment styles can be tested in the lab by putting a child in a room either with or without their mother and have a stranger present and seeing how they respond - i.e. whether they get upset/look for their mother/how much exploring they do. This is called the “Strange Situation Task”.

“Secure” attachment styles are said to be the best. These children get very upset when their caregivers leave, are happy to be comforted by them, and will explore when they are present. Parents of these children are said to be very responsive to their children, and react quickly when they are upset. As adults these kids are said to have trusting, long term relationships, high self esteem - generally lots of good things.

The “ambivalent” children are different -  they are really suspicious of strangers even when the caregiver is there, get really upset when the caregiver leaves but can’t be comforted by them when they return. This is a relatively uncommon style, and it is thought to be because the caregiver is not responsive to the child, and isn’t really there to comfort them most of the time, and so the child seems to become very “needy” but doesn’t trust their caregiver enough to  be consistent. As adults these kids are said to be reluctant to get close to other people, and have the same fear of trusting that someone cares about them, although they are very dependent  usually. 

“Avoidant” children don’t really “care” that their caregiver is there (for lack of a better word!). They don’t reject the parent necessarily, but they don’t look to them for comfort, and they show no preference between their parent and a stranger. As adults, these children are said to have difficulty with close relationships, not investing much emotion in them and avoiding intimacy. 

Finally - disorganised attachment - these kids often show “confused” behaviour. They will seem apprehensive of the caregiver - they will seek comfort from them but then reject it if it is offered. This is said to be because of inconsistent behaviour from the parents - offering comfort and then taking it away or not offering it another time. Some say it happens when the parent is a source of fear and reassurance to the child, and so the child doesn’t know what to expect. These kids will probably show the same apprehensiveness to relationships when they grow up, sometimes avoiding them altogether. 

Research has shown that early attachment styles can help predict adulthood attachment but It is important not to just blame parents though! A lot of time passes between childhood and adulthood - and ultimately you can change your attachment style. 

Synesthesia: the blending of normally separate senses

Synesthesia is a neurological phenomenon where the stimulation of one sense (e.g. hearing) creates a sensation in another (e.g. taste). Examples include: seeing colours while listening to music, hearing sounds when viewing certain colours, experiencing certain tastes while listening to music, and seeing colours when reading. There are also different forms of synesthesia as well - a colour grapheme synaesthete would see colours for every letter of the alphabet for example, where as a time-period colour synaesthete would experience colours for months of the year.  

This may sound like it is a rare phenomenon, but in fact it is not. Recent prevalence rates of 1 in 100 have been reported. Some even suggest that instead of being a completely separate condition, that synesthesia is merely an exaggeration of abilities we all in fact have. For example, a lot of us might associate the colour blue with the word cold, or red to the word hot, if we were asked to assign colours to words. This means that synesthesia could be genetic or it could be learned. The genetic account comes from evidence that synaesthesia runs in families, however this phenomenon has a complex genetic basis that is still to be worked out conclusively.

The learning account is interesting to consider - in this account it is believed that people with synesthesia actually learn these associations somehow. For example - In a study by researchers Witthoft and Winawer (2006) a grapheme-colour synaesthete (meaning they saw colours when they saw letters) seemed to have learned her associations from the alphabet sets she had as a child. While the photo above is not a picture of the exact set she had as a child, it can be used to illustrate the point. For instance, if the A in the alphabet set was red, she now saw red when she saw a; if the B was blue, she now saw B’s as blue (and so on….)

Furthermore - her childrens alphabet set had a repeating, 6 colour order: red, blue, yellow, green, dark blue and purple. Her representations of letters followed this same pattern: so A=red, B=blue, C=yellow etc, and this repeated all the way through the alphabet. 

As if this wasn’t interesting enough, the individual then moved to Russia, and started learning the Cyrillic alphabet. Researchers tested her for colour associations with this alphabet too - they found that cyrillic letters that looked the same as an english letter would have the same colour, and that letters that sounded the same would also be associated with the same colour in both alphabets…..

This individual, although only a case study, provides good evidence that there is a learned component to synaesthesia that must be considered. It could be a combination of both genetics and learning working together. 

Brain imaging techniques (such as DTI - diffusion tensor imaging) and fMRI are trying to locate areas that are responsive to each other in individuals with synaesthesia, so as to try and help explain how two senses can interact together. Overall synaesthesia is incredibly interesting because it is an unusual phenomenon - e.g. individuals are experiencing colour without actually seeing any through their eyes. This means exciting future research! 

This information was based on a Cognitive Neuroscience lecture given by G. Thut (University of Glasgow)



I have to say I am sorry for the late reply on this - I only just saw it so I’m not even sure when it was sent.

Anyway, I’ve had so many questions about stats from undergrads this week (it’s dissertation hand in time at my university) so I thought I would just answer this publicly in case anyone else is having the same issues. 

Ok - so stats…. it seems to be the dreaded topic among many psychology undergrads. 

Firstly, it’s perfectly okay if it takes you longer than others to grasp stats. Stats is hard for everyone, including me. When I’m helping undergrads with their stats it can take me a while to figure out what basic statistical tests they should be using with their data. I have to look things up to be sure sometimes, and sometimes I ask a fellow grad student to confirm. More often than not, we will both want to go and look it up just to be sure we are giving out correct advice. I want to stress: that is perfectly natural. Data is complicated, and the way you apply statistical tests to data is so important that it is better to take your time and consider the stats carefully. It is particularly hard when it isn’t your own data you are trying to analyse, hence why it takes us a while to figure it out. So in that sense, statistics isn’t really something you will ever know off the top of your head once it gets past basics like the t-test/anova/GLM, and that is ok. That’s what the internet and books are there for: to help you out when you aren’t sure, which is perfectly acceptable in the real world rather than in undergrad classrooms. 

I am not anything special when it comes to statistics, yet my PhD involves various forms of brain imaging and computational brain network modelling, both of which are intensely statistical and mathematical. When I started my PhD I didn’t know how to do any of the stats for fMRI off the top of my head, nor do I think I’m mathematically gifted and picked it up easily. Fortunately, there were many books, websites, YouTube videos and supervisors around to help me when I wasn’t sure, and I used those resources to figure out what needed done and then do my work. That is a perfectly sensible and reasonable way of approaching statistics in research to ensure you are getting it right, and I would recommend those resources to you as well. So please don’t feel like you’re out of your depth, as almost everyone finds stats difficult at some point, particularly at the start of new projects. Hopefully reading about how I work will show you that there are ways to get around these difficulties. 

I’m not entirely sure where you go to school, so it might help you to know how much stats I actually did before I graduated? Anyway, year long statistics classes and labs were mandatory for me during my B.Sc., for all four years of my undergrad. So by the time I had graduated from my undergraduate degree, I had been studying stats for 4 full years. Despite that, I genuinely did not feel that I had even scratched the surface of how many statistical methods were out there. 

This isn’t meant to put you off at all. I’m trying to stress that you become better at statistics simply by doing more analysis and looking at data. It is inherently easier to understand statistics when it is your own data as well - there is something different about doing a project from start to finish that allows you to better understand statistics in the context of what you are doing, rather than just reading off a worksheet or a textbook where you have no idea how they collected the data or what it really means. 

Sure, you need to know the basics of stats (things like the difference between parametric/non parametric tests and when to use each, what a t-test is etc.), but again that will come by reading a textbook, learning it once carefully, and then you will know it. You also need to have a good idea of what kind of test you might need to run, and generally how to use statistical packages, but these are all things that again can be looked up in a stats book, picked up from a class, or learned from the internet until you get a hang of it. I have many, many stats books sitting in my office and use them constantly and feel absolutely no shame about that. I still give my supervisor a blank stare sometimes when he proposes an analysis, and he will happily write down the formulas for me on post it notes that I can then go and code, or tell me the name of the new test so I can go and figure out what it is and how to do it. I managed to do my final year undergrad dissertation research project stats by watching SPSS tutorials on YouTube (not even kidding). The internet is a wonderful teaching resource so make full use of it. 

I guess what I am trying to get at here is that once you have gotten the hang of stats, it becomes much easier and much less scary to learn more and utilise your skills appropriately. I’ve accepted the fact that statistics itself is an entire discipline in its own right, so expecting to be able to know everything about it isn’t realistic. I realise that, like everything else, practice makes perfect, so I just keep trying to learn. Plus, the statistics I have used in the past are completely different from the ones I’m using now, simply because i am working in a different research area than I was even a year ago. For example, statistics that i used to think were incredibly important (i.e. the p-value) are pretty much ignored by bayesian statisticians: that is only something I learned this year when I started working with a new supervisor. What I’m getting at is: you will learn the stats you need as you go more often than not (like I have done), and eventually it will start to become easier, I promise. It will be a continual learning process over the rest of your career, but so is everything else in a general science (or psychology specific for you) career. That’s one of the best parts: you never have to stop learning things. 

You asked me:

‘Do I think there is room in the field of psychology for people like me?’

My honest answer is: yes of course. I don’t know what kind of person you are, apart from that stats is a weak point for you right now. However you said that you do understand eventually but that it is just a concerted effort. I do get that it is hard work, particularly if it doesn’t come naturally. However, most things in life that are hard require a massive effort, there is just no way around it. I remember the first time I started learning fMRI physics I sat inside for a week solid and simply tried to understand the equations and how the different types of scans worked. It was a MASSIVE effort for such a small piece of knowledge, but ultimately it benefitted me greatly and that’s really all down to hard work. I continually put in tremendous amounts of effort because I want to be great at what I do, and it does work. I’m going to learn EEG and MEG soon, and I already know that will involve months of learning even basic statistical techniques for analysing that data, over and over again: but that is okay because it’s just something I have to do if I want to do the career I’ve chosen. People become better at things by putting more effort in, so if you want to become better at stats i urge you to continue with learning it. I understand the worry that if you spend more time on stats your other subjects will suffer, but hopefully there is a way around that time wise. Perhaps taking on a tutor, or studying with a friend who finds stats easier, or taking more stats courses instead of other subjects would be helpful? I don’t know exactly, so I can’t really comment, but I hope you find a way to balance it all.

Now, I bet you’re wondering why I have harped on about statistics for so long, trying to convince you it will get easier and it is totally possible? Well, it’s because statistics is an intrinsic part of psychology. Despite what some uninformed individuals like to claim, psychology is a science, and science involves research, and research requires statistics. I can’t entirely figure out if you want to be involved in research or not from your question? It sounds like you like research (abstract thinking/applying thoughts practically etc.) but not the stats part, which is fine. Honestly I think 90% of psychologists aren’t overly fond of statistics, but that same 90% also aren’t that overly fussed by it either because we just realise it’s an everyday part of the job, and it’s not necessarily even a big part depending on what sub field you work in. I cannot think of any subfield where basic stats isn’t going to be required though unfortunately, because like I said before, psychology is a science and we need to collect data to test our hypotheses/abstract thoughts to see if they are supported, and give weight to them if it turns out they are. Having the thoughts isn’t enough these days, you need to be able to quantify them in some way to allow others to critically review them and hopefully appreciate them in the field. If you love academic writing you need something to write about, and even if you never wrote about your own research (which I think would be impossible) you would have to read others research and understand the statistics in there to write about that academic material. 

I’m not saying this to bring you down more; I’m saying it because I want to show you that stats is important, so it is essential that you stick it out. At the end of the day, actually doing the stats is usually such a small part of an overall research project. Sometimes it is as simple as selecting a test from a drop down menu or writing a line of code and it is done. Other times it isn’t, but that’s when you can research ways of doing the tests you need to do, and then it is still a few lines of code or picking a few option in a package more often that not.

Please don’t let the importance of it affect your confidence. There are so many other important parts to studying psychology and i don’t want you to diminish all the other skills you have. For example, you say you enjoy academic writing: lots of people HATE academic writing and find it really difficult. So right there you have a skill that a lot of people are right now thinking, ‘Man, i wish I loved academic writing, it would make my life easier.’ 

All I can say is: stick with stats. It’s a pretty big hill to climb up for almost everyone, but you will reach the top eventually and realise that it isn’t all that scary. Statistics is just such an incredibly important part of psychology, so I guarantee you that it will be worth all the effort in the end. 

I actually can’t believe it was a year ago I sat down and decided to start this blog. I had no expectations and no real plan, and I certainly didn’t expect a single person to follow me. And gosh - look at where I am now.

Thank you very much for reading my blog! 👍


Firstly - what kind of things is it you want to study? Maybe that would help me advise you better (although I don’t feel I am an expert in anything!). 

Ok so Psychology is really broad - it encompasses everything about the mind, the brain, and behaviour. Even more than that really. It is hard to explain as psychology is so vast - you learn about so many different things; like language, memory, attention, social interactions, dreams, abnormal psychology, forensic psychology, perception, brain imaging, neuroscience actually as well….. the list really goes on and on and on. Basically it focuses on the brain and behaviour if I had to sum it up. You will work with people mostly, and the research will be based on human participants and usually looks at their behaviour in some way (directly or as a way of working out what is going on in the mind). Psychology nowadays really encompasses a lot of neuroscience as well - every year of my degree involved neuroscience subjects and I even took a whole minor in it. 

Neuroscience really focuses on the make up of the brain - how it works, how it is made up, what activates etc. Really - it focuses on the biology side and usually involves using animals for experiments or brain imaging more nowadays. Neuroscience really looks at the brain and the nervous system from a biological point of view and isn’t all concerned with social interactions, language etc., unless they are looking for some sort of biological basis for it. 

I found this link HERE which had a good explanation even though it is for a specific university class rather than your question: 

“Psychology is the study of behavior – from the level of brain mechanisms of behavior to social interactions. It encompasses a large breath of topics including: applied, social, developmental, clinical cognitive, and physiological psychology. Majoring in psychology will expose you to many of these disciplines. In contrast, neuroscience is the study of brain mechanisms and encompasses material from the molecular and cellular level of how neurons work, to cognitive and behavioral levels where questions of how neural processes lead to behavior and cognitive thought is studied. In between these two levels, neuroscience also involves anatomical and system level analyses of brain function.” 

 Basically it is what I was trying to say, just written much more eloquently. I hope this helps in some way! 

Thanks :) 

Sensory Neurons Identified as Critical to Sense of Touch

Scientists at Duke Medicine have pinpointed specific neurons that appear to regulate touch perception. 

“On a molecular level, touch is the most poorly understood of the senses. While there are many types of touch sensor neurons, we still don’t know how these neurons respond to force,” said W. Daniel Tracey, PhD, associate professor of anesthesiology at Duke Univeristy Medical Center, and the author of this new study. 

This study looked at the larvae of fruit flies to investigate their sense of touch. Scientists stroked the larvae with an eyelash and then measured behavioural responses. They managed to identify many specialized neurons to be touch sensors in the larvae, along with several ion channel gene families that were important. 

Researchers hope that a better understanding of touch in humans will eventually help develop treatments for patients with sensory or pain issues. 

“By learning more about touch sensing, we can begin to explore why these neurons become so responsive to stimuli, and how it is that these signals become painful. We might - in the long run - help people with chronic pain issues in new ways by looking at the underlying molecular mechanisms,” Tracey said. 

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Torturing Sims in the The Sims isn’t so uncommon

Most people who have played The Sims have either toyed with the idea of putting their sim in the pool and removing the ladders, or have actually gone ahead with it and watched their sim drown. 

Psychologists, such as Dr. Jamie Madigan, state that people who inflict torture upon their sims “may not be as much of a subset as we might think. People may simply be curious about what happens when they create these situations. The Sims is a socially acceptable way to do things that people might not be able to do in real life.”

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Read the Official Psychology of The Sims

A new study published recently has identified a new enzyme that could be used as a new therapeutic target to treat or prevent Alzheimer’s disease. 

A hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease is the presence of something called beta amyloid plaques between nerve cells in the brain. In a normal brain, these proteins are broken down and eliminated, but in individuals with Alzheimer’s disease, they become hard and insoluble.

This new study found that inactivation of the enzyme MAGL (Monoacylglycerol lipase) meant reduced production and accumulation of beta amyloid plaques in the brain. Researchers found that inactivations of MAGL for 8 weeks only was sufficient enough to decrease production and deposition of these amyloid plaques in mice. 

With Alzheimer’s disease affecting so many worldwide, therapeutic discoveries like this are exciting! 

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